27 March, 2010

Prabal Gurung: Nepal’s global celebrity


SUSHMA JOSHI
MAR 27, 2010 - Kathmandu Post

Prabal Gurung has become a household name in most of the planet, and yet, ironically, remains fairly unknown in Nepal. After starting his own fashion label titled Prabal Gurung, Prabal is on his dizzying way to dress some of the most famous people in the world. Recently, Michelle Obama was seen wearing his black-and-white brush-painted rose-silk twill gazar hand-draped off-the-shoulder dress. She had a radiant smile, and looked softer and relaxed than she usually did in her tightly tailored outfits. Actress Demi Moore has become a big fan and tweeted about Prabal on Twitter, sending the first wave of news about this new designer across the planet. Vogue Editor in Chief Anna Wintour, who was immortalised for her excruciatingly high standards in the movie, The Devil Wears Prada, recently sat in the front row of Prabal’s show at the New York Fashion Week, giving him the kiss of approval. And yet, he remains to be known in his own home country.

Partially, it’s because the fashion industry is a fledgling one in Nepal, and we have not yet understood its importance. As an example, after Michelle Obama wore Prabal, the Indian press went crazy, but there was very little press inside Nepal. Our country remains insular, slow to learn new things. And Nepal has yet to learn how to celebrate success. Prabal Gurung, surely, is one of Nepal’s greatest successes.

Nepal may appear to forget Prabal, but Prabal never forgets Nepal. Not too long ago, Prabal was not yet a household name in the world of celebrities—he was just a student at the Parsons School of Design in New York. Admittedly, Prabal being Prabal, he was never “just” anything—even as a student he had the look of someone marked for greatness. A certain quality made him stand out from the hundreds of other students who attended the same institution.

In 2001, Parsons’ New School for Design faculty asked Prabal not to compete for the Best Designer Competition. Instead he was asked to open the show with 15 pieces of his own work. I was one of five other Nepali friends he had invited to come to the show. We were wowed by the incredible dresses he put up during this event. At the end, hundreds of people swarmed around Prabal. We were about to sneak out, convinced that he was too busy to meet us. As we headed to the door, Prabal came running out to us. “Hey!” he said, “Where are you going without meeting me?” He sounded clearly hurt. I always think about this moment as a reminder that even when Prabal is at his busiest (note that this must have been the moment when Cynthia Rowley offered him a job), he always finds time for his Nepali friends.

Prabal’s confidence and drive comes, I am certain, from his background—an extraordinarily supportive mother and father, and two siblings who form an unseen trio behind this phenomenon. Prabal’s mother has always been a pillar of strength, pushing him to new heights. Although he is the youngest and gets all the attention, behind him stand two other extraordinary siblings. The trio has never failed to impress me with how well they articulate their thoughts and feelings, and also their incredible flow with communicating ideas. The three call each other every week on the phone, and talk with each other to support life choices, projects and ideas. His sister Kumudini tells me she used to protect her brothers from harassment when they went to school—it must have been comforting to have a sister who looked out for you and protected you at that young age. And the calm and super-thoughtful Pravesh Gurung, who now works with director Sanjay Leela Bhansali, has surely influenced the gregarious younger Prabal with listening skills that come in handy when dealing with celebrities.

In real life, Prabal is a charming and witty man who loves to have fun. In Nepali lingo, he would be known as a “haude” guy. So how did this man achieve the level of greatness in such a competitive industry?

I think, behind the informal, fun-loving energy, is a serious drive to achieve and excel instilled in him from a young age. More fundamentally, even in his darkest days—and I have seen those dark days when the windows were closed and there was a lot of cigarette smoke inside the rooms—Prabal never gave up.

He also never gave up his ties to his identity. A friend of ours recounts the moment when Prabal, she and I went to see Kabhi Khushi, Kabhi Gham at the Eagle Theatre in Queens. She started to cry from the emotional story. Wiping away tears, she looked at me—I was crying. So was Prabal.

Prabal, being a fashion industry celebrity even as a student, rarely put a foot out of Manhattan, the central hub of New York. But one day he got a real craving for noodles he used to eat as a child. He begged me to buy a box for him and bring it over to his house. Seeing the chance to have him come visit my downscaled neighbourhood, I refused. Finally, after much persuasion, Prabal Gurung stepped out of the subway in a maroon outfit, a beret jauntily perched on his head. He made his way straight to the supermarket, bought a giant box of noodles that he used to eat as a child, then made his way immediately back down into the subway again. Prabal had better things to do than hang out in Queens.

The ability to be moved by Bollywood, the ability to sing and have fun, and the memory that never forgets childhood noodles—the ability, in short, not to forget one’s history, is what takes people to great heights. He told me recently he’d been nominated for the 2010 CFDA Swarovski Womens’ Wear Award, the equivalent of the Oscars for the fashion world. The awards will take place on June 7. I never doubted Prabal’s word—and I have no doubts this time too, he will get it.


--> Interview with Prabal Gurung
(Joshi is a columnist for The Kathmandu Post).
____________________________________________________________________________

I would ask my country to be proud of me for taking a chance: Prabal Gurung

MAR 27 - Prabal Gurung spoke to Sushma Joshi about his recent achievements, and his future plans for Nepal.


Michelle Obama—what was the experience like of meeting her?

Unfortunately I have not yet met the first lady but I hope that at some point down the road I will be lucky enough to have that experience.


Why did you want to dress her? What about her attracted your attention?

She epitomises modern grace while exuding strength and intelligence. These are qualities that you often do not find in one woman but she is able to convey each of these traits almost effortlessly.


How did you feel about Anna Wintour, Vogue’s editor, being on the front row of your show at the New York Fashion Week?

Wintour has a profound effect on fashion so to have her attend my first runway show was an enormous honour. I have a deep respect for her fashion insight, her innovative eye, and her willingness to support those she believes in.


What’s been your best moment so far this year, and why?

There has not been one moment that has influenced me or formed me more than another but rather all of the experiences within the past year have been pivotal. The most recent occurrence that made me incredibly proud was having the first lady wear a dress from a recent collection. That was a definite dream-come-true (moment).


What else needs to be done in your career?

My overall timeline goes on for decades but more immediate goals include expansion of the business through the right collaborations, breaking into markets other than women’s wear and through category extensions.



How would you like your country to acknowledge your achievements—what

would make you happiest?

My hope is that everyone in Nepal somehow celebrates my success as theirs and dares to be fearless. If my story inspires even a few individuals throughout the nation to dream, take a risk and work harder for what they are passionate about, I will be so incredibly proud and honoured. That is all I ask for.



We are all so proud of you. What do you want us to be proudest of?

As a Nepalese citizen I understand that choosing design as a career is not common so I would ask my country to be proud of me for taking a chance. Every individual has different dreams and aspirations so while taking a different path can be intimidating you have to let your passion override that feeling and follow your heart.


What do you plan to do for your country (or are doing already)?

I am working with my brother and sister to establish a foundation in Nepal that aims to create a positive impact on the lives of children throughout the country. The focus is on education, which plays such an integral role in bridging the disparities that are so stark in our part of the world. In particular, we would like to mentor underprivileged girls and ensure that they are not only provided with the proper education but assure that their environment is conducive to their holistic and physical growth and foster their social and emotional needs.

Another way I would love to give back to Nepal would be by eventually producing a line that will create jobs and fashion related opportunities for local craftsmen in Nepal.



What do you want young people to take from your success story?

My message to the youth in Nepal would that life is about growing, learning and finding your niche and there is no way to truly do that if you do not take that jump and just try.

25 March, 2010

Prabal Gurung

Prabal Gurung has become a household name in most of the planet, and yet ironically remains fairly unknown in Nepal. After starting his own fashion label titled Prabal Gurung, Prabal is on his dizzying way to dress some of the most famous people in the world. Recently, Michelle Obama was seen wearing his black and white brush painted rose silk twill gazar hand draped off-the-shoulder dress. She had a radiant smile, and looked softer and relaxed than she usually did in her tightly tailored outfits. Demi Moore, actress, has become a big fan and tweeted about Prabal on Twitter, sending the first wave of news about this new designer across the planet. Vogue Editor in Chief Anna Wintour, who was immortalized for her excruciatingly high standards in the movie, ”The Devil Wears Prada,” recently sat front row of Gurung’s show during New York Fashion Week, giving him the kiss of approval.

And yet, Prabal remains yet to be known to his own home country. Partially, its because the fashion industry is fledgling in Nepal, and we have not yet understood the importance of fashion. For example, after Michelle Obama wore Prabal Gurung, the Indian press went crazy, but there was very little press from Nepal. Unfortunately, Nepal is insular when it comes to understanding new things. Nepal has yet to learn how to celebrate our successes.

And Prabal Gurung is surely one of Nepal’s greatest success. Nepal may appear to forget Prabal, but Prabal never forgets Nepal. Not too long ago, Prabal was not yet a household name in the world of celebrities—he was just a student at the Parsons School of Design in New York. Admittedly, Prabal being Prabal, he was never “just” anything—even as a student he had the look of someone marked for greatness. A certain quality made him stand out from the hundreds of other students who attended the same institution.

In 2001, Parsons The New School for Design faculty asked Prabal not to compete for the Best Designer Competition. Instead Prabal was asked to open the show with 15 pieces of his own work. I was one of five other Nepali friends he had invited to come to the show. We were wowed by the incredible dresses he put up during this event.

At the end, hundreds of people swarmed around Prabal. We were about to sneak out, convinced that he was too busy to meet us, as we headed to the door, Prabal came running out to us. “Hey!” he said, “Where are you going without meeting me?” He sounded clearly hurt. I always think about this moment as a reminder that even when Prabal is at his busiest (note that this must have been the moment when Cynthia Rowley offered him a job), he always finds time for his Nepali friends.

Prabal’s confidence and drive comes, I am certain, from his background—an extraordinarily supportive mother and father, and two siblings who form an unseen trio behind this phenomena. Prabal’s mother has always been a pillar of strength, pushing him to new heights. Although Prabal is the youngest and gets all the attention, behind him stand two other extraordinary siblings. The trio has never failed to impress me with how well they are able to articulate their thoughts and feelings, and also their incredible flow with communicating ideas. The three call each other every week on the phone, and talk with each other to support life choices, projects and ideas.

His sister Kumudini tells me she used to protect her brothers from harassment when they went to school—it must have been comforting to have a sister who looked out for you and protected you at that young age. And the calm and super-thoughtful Pravesh Gurung, who now works with director Sanjay Leela Banshali, has surely influenced the gregarious younger Prabal with listening skills that come in handy when dealing with celebrities.

In real life, Prabal is a charming and witty man who loves to have fun. In Nepali lingo, he would be known as a “howday” guy. So how did this man achieve the level of greatness in such a competitive industry? I think behind the informal, fun-loving energy is the serious drive to achieve and excel that was instilled in him at a young age. More fundamentally, even in his darkest days—and I have seen those dark days when windows were closed and there was a lot of cigarette smoke inside the rooms—Prabal never gave up. He also never gave up his ties to his identity. A friend of ours recounts the moment when Prabal, she and I went to see “Kabhi Khusi, Kabhi Gham” at the Eagle Theatre in Queens. She started to cry from the emotional story. Wiping away tears, she looked at me—I was crying. So was Prabal.

Prabal, being a fashion industry celebrity even as a student, rarely put a foot out of Manhattan, the central hub of New York. But one day he got a real craving for noodles he used to eat as a child. He begged me to buy a box for him and bring it over to his house. Seeing the chance to have him come visit my downscaled neighborhood, I refused. So finally after much persuasion Prabal Gurung stepped out of the subway in a maroon outfit, a beret jauntily perched on his head. He made his way straight to the supermarket, bought a giant box of noodles that he used to eat as a child, then made his way immediately back down into the subway again. Prabal had better things to do than hang out in Queens. The ability to be moved by Bollywood, the ability to sing and have fun, and the memory that never forgets childhood noodles—the ability, in short, not to forget one’s history, is what takes people to great heights.

Prabal told me recently he’d been nominated for the 2010 CFDA Swarovski Womenswear Award, the equivalent of the Oscars for the fashion world. The 2010 will take place on June 7th at Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center. I never doubted Prabal’s word—I have no doubt that time around also he will get it.

Sushma Joshi is a writer who writes the Global and the Local op-ed in the Kathmandu Post.

14 March, 2010

THE GLOBAL AND THE LOCAL: The baby and the bathwater


SUSHMA JOSHI

A high UN official got ticked off by Nepali civil society for using the word “boring”. It was a “boring argument,” he said, to blame UNMIN for the failure of the peace process. He went on to make a bold statement: “It basically means people are not doing their own work and looking around for somebody else to blame.”

This, I thought, was quite interesting (the opposite of “boring.”) Most of us have felt the same boredom as we watch 601 CA members vacillate between endless positions on federalism, ethnic and indigenous issues, Army integration, and the writing of the Constitution. The most boring thing of all, of course, is the blame game. A lot of blaming going on, with the Maoists now getting the worst of the flak. They are now apparently to blame for the way things are falling apart, according to recent media reports.

Just as no doubt UNMIN is to blame for not making a little questionaire and holding focus groups in local villages with its skeletal staff, saying: Maam, can you tell us how many AK-47s you are hiding in your cowshed? The mind boggles at the possibilities.

As anybody who’s been stuck in a traffic jam knows, the obstruction caused by large numbers of cars and motorcycles all trying to edge past is an incremental process that leads to a full stop. It’s hard to know who started it, and it is harder to know which of the dozens of rule-breakers to blame for the collective immobility. I imagine that the Maoists too are stuck in the same type of jam. Although people expected a lot from them there is not a lot they could do when everybody else is honking their horns and trying to edge past avoiding the most basic of courtseys.

A two-third majority hardly means Maoists could sail past with the Constitution writing process. Look at us — twenty-six million of us, and 601 of them, and they still hold us captive, proving the silent majority doesn’t have power to do a whole lot.

If the news is to be believed, even federalism is now up for question. A faction in the CPN-UML, if I’m not mistaken, seems to be rethinking federalism. I was recently in Biratnagar, Nepal’s industrial hub and the gateway to four countries. We could have powered up our industrial strength with areas like Biratnagar. Instead, what I found was the same dusty airport and the same bamboo shacks of decades ago. A painful sense of time being lost rises as I see the same men, undernourished and tired, driving the same rickshaws. This city could have been the hub of the breadbasket of Nepal — instead, it clearly harbours hungry people.

Without federalism, I cannot imagine Kathmandu giving up its grip on the tiny pie of power and funds. The pie, of course, is infinitely expandable — if Kathmandu is wise enough to give up control. Federalism would create government at the regional and local levels — admittedly, which may also be just as corrupt as the one that exists at the centre. But at least it would be one step towards local governance and decision making which now is out of reach of the communities.

Unfortunately, the same Maoists who had the bright idea of federating the country seem to have sunk the idea themselves by attaching it to ethnicity. Alas. What were they thinking? The Maoists again tripped up by not stopping the violence of their youth cadres and by sidetracking themselves from the concrete task of shaping an inclusive Constitution and by attaching themselves to the powderkeg of military power.

But let’s not think all has been derailed. Maoists need to be brought back into the fold, but whether old-style politicians of other parties are capable of this kind of inclusiveness remains to be seen. Maoist leaders have gone around making pronouncements of the “Sleeping Tiger” and I would imagine it would be wise to heed this. Being a Maoist leader at this point is probably not easy — no doubt the level of disillusionment from not just the people who voted for them, but also their own cadres, is dangerously high.

But let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater — Maoists are still a powerful force who changed old-style politics and brought a breath of fresh air to the musty halls of power. If they were to think less of seizing the military and more about how to change the political system for the benefit of the people, they might be doing a whole lot more good. What Maoists did very effectively was to train a large number of people to think about social change in a radically different way. There is no reason why they can’t still be a powerful force in changing Nepali politics towards a more functional model, at the same time allowing themselves to be changed by the essential principles of liberal democracy.

The youth trained by Maoists are an immense asset to Nepal. Instead of thinking of them as opponents to democracy, they should be included into the nation-building process. The ten years lost by young people in the war should be compensated through educational programmes which allow them to catch up in degree-granting, adult education programmes. Employment programmes which tap their energy and enthusiasm should also be instituted -for instance, the National Development Service of King Mahendra which deployed thousands of young people to build rural infrastructure in the sixties could be a model. I remember my uncle flipping through his album, with photographs of him digging a water system. He always talked about this experience with pride. Why not institute similar programmes for lakhs of young people who’ve dedicated up to ten years of their lives to a new Nepal?

I was chatting recently with an aunt with a phenomenal memory. In her seventies, this lady finds card games and politics equally interesting. As she reeled off facts and anecdotes from decades ago, it became clear I was dealing with someone who took politics very personally. Despite her monarchial sympathies, she was impartial with her critiques of all the leaders, talking about the childrearing mistakes of queen Aishwarya, the mistakes of Girija Prasad Koirala (he humiliated Sher Bahadur, which was disrespectful to a prime minister of Nepal), and the mistakes of recent leaders with perceptive clarity. This was a lady who keeps track of all this boring day to day stuff. So I asked her: where do you see the future of Nepal?

She, like most of us, was pessimistic. If left to the hands of the current leaders, Nepal would soon end up in pieces. Then she said something surprising. “The only hope I see now,” she said, “is if somebody from some of the smaller Tarai-Madesh parties or some of the ethnic parties rises above the political infighting and takes the lead to remake the nation.” The nation, she said, had to go back to a model where we saw ourselves not as beggars asking for money, but as a country self-sufficient in rice, lentils, ghee, sugar and matches.

Was it a coincidence that I happened to turn on the TV the next day and saw Upendra Yadav, a former Maoist, saying something about large scale, non-violent change? I am certain I heard him utter the word ahimsa. Perhaps there is hope yet for Nepal’s politics.


Sushma Joshi

sansarmagazine@gmail.com

07 March, 2010

Un-Naturally Nepal

SUSHMA JOSHI
2010/03/07

I rarely watch TV — guilty admission, I don’t own one. So when I got my hands on a remote control and flipped the channel, I was agape to see an ad in an international channel. People sailed off cliffs in paragliders, rushed through mountains in sleek bikes, and jumped through empty space tied to bungee cords. Thumping techno music held me spellbound. An ad for an extreme athletic event, I imagined. Then the familiar voice (Bhusan Dahal?) announced: Naturally Nepal, Once is Not Enough!

You will forgive me if this ad came as a shock — as I said, I don’t own a TV, and rarely watch it. I was surprised on three counts. First, it appears the ad linked Nepal as a destination — not of culture, not of nature, not of friendly people with great hospitality, but a place where testosterone-laden men (and women) could unload some of their twentieth century instincts to live life on the edge by indulging in extreme sports. Of course, bungee, paragliding and mountain biking are possibly safe activities that one can enjoy greatly with friends and with family — if your family tends to be on the highly athletic side. Taken by themselves, they are also profitable for a small number of entrepreneurs. Nepal has always been a destination for adventurers — and now, why not promote it to this specific demographics of twenties to thirties, affluent, two-week vacation, thrill-seeking visitors?

Secondly, I was surprised by the “once is not enough.” Surely people don’t come to bungee jump over and over — isn’t it a one time event? Surely thrill seekers don’t seek the same thrills, by the very definition of being thrill seekers?

And thirdly, that slogan, which stresses “Naturally” with such natural aplomb, doesn’t seem to be tied to anything natural on the ground. Of course, Nepal abounds in nature. But we are on our way to destroying all of it within the next decade or two with plastic, unprocessed garbage, and the glossy, fast-paced life that goes along with life lived on the edge. Pardon my cynicism, but have the government and Nepal Tourism Board, which are making pronouncements of attracting millions of visitors to Nepal, give a single thought to how the tourist industry may choke and die on its own unexamined growth?

Thousands of partially empty restaurants, hotel rooms, and cybers line the lakeside in Pokhara right now — many waiting for elusive Israelis who’ve decided not to come this year. The cyber owner who has stuck Hebrew letters on his keyboard thinks Nepal’s political instability keeps them away. I tell him about the global financial crisis and he says, suddenly understanding that factors other than local may affect tourist behaviour: “I never heard anything about this till today.”

So there you go. One year you invest lakhs on starting a cyber, the next year nobody shows up to use it. In Nepal, translate that to thousands of businesses in Pokhara’s lakeside, selling goods and services that they imagine an ideal tourist wanting. Their rooms are all Rs.500, and the Internet all says Rs.60 per hour. But who wants it? The people who came before came for the quietitude of a small place with great hospitality, and of course, nature. Now it’s a Third World dumpheap where large, empty shacks jostle each other to provide peeling tables buzzing with flies, or beds covered with dirty linen. And only Rs.500. Yum, how appetising.

Does the NTB know that tourists won’t come unless entrepreneurs learn the basics of hospitality — cleanliness before concrete? People may prefer a bamboo shack that’s clean to a concrete mansion that’s dirty? Does it have the political acumen to ban plastic around heritage areas? Would it provide environmental protection and nature appreciation courses to its entrepreneurs? Or will it just spend its money on expensive, testosterone-fueled ads?

The lakeside which I remember from two decades ago has shrunk to about twenty-five percent. But people, relentless, can’t stop building — footpaths next to the lake, a road going right across, a sewage processing hole in the ground choked with plastic. The hills across the lake are deforested. I can guess, with a fair degree of certainty, that Fewatal will shrink to a toxic puddle within the next fifty years if there’s no regulation. People, greedy for growth, will choke off the very lake that feeds them.

But does the government care? Are there national environmental regulations which restrict growth of this nature around natural heritage sites like Fewatal? I doubt it. We Nepalis won’t be satisfied till we destroy the lake — and then when it’s a sewer, we will still come and take photographs besides it, unaware of what we just lost.

“Lots of overbuilding and lots of garbage,” says an Italian couple staying at Fishtail Lodge when I question them on their perception of Pokhara.

“That’s development, that can’t be stopped,” says a journalist with vehemence when I say that there seems to be a great deal of building going on in Pokhara. “You know, the Italians and Spanish still keep their old buildings,” I tell the journalist. “They have vineyards where they grow grapes and people go to see these places. They stay in old buildings from hundreds of years ago. Millions of people would choose to go to Italy or Spain over Nepal any day because they still keep their agricultural and architectural and natural heritages.” The journalist pouted. No doubt he thought I was being elite.

Who is asking the question: is this the right model of growth for tourism? Ironically, Nepal Tourism Board seems unaware that its high end tourists, who spend money to stay at hotels like the Hyatt, come for spiritual reasons. They come to partake of ancient cultures of spiritual learning and philosophies. They come for discreet lectures and workshops given by rimpoches and khenpos (thank you, China, for handing over your most precious living cultural treasures to us and boosting our tourist industry.) These high-end tourists, please note, are seeking a spiritual vacation in direct contradiction to the lifestyle NTB promotes on air.

How can Nepal attract tourists without destroying the very life people come to see? As the government shifts into high gear to promote “Village Tourism”, which more and more people talk about with great enthusiasm, I would say it’s central for all entrepreneurs involved in the tourist sector to come together to make and promote nature conservation and preservation laws.

The kind of environmental regulations and protections that exist in Europe and the US doesn’t exist in Nepal. Nepal’s greatest treasure is nature — lakes, rivers, mountains. Tourists will come once for the fame of Nepal. But if we want them to repeat their visits, we may have to rethink the model of Nepal from testosterone-driven adventure hellhole to a beautiful space where nature and garbage get equal respect. “Naturally Nepal” could have been a great slogan for environmental tourism — a growth industry. At its best, it is an artificial slogan for a limited sports industry that attracts a small demographics.

Let the word “nature” return to its original meaning — green trees, fresh water, live fish, biodegradable articles of daily use. Let’s celebrate Nepal for these treasures, not just for its potential to pump adrenaline. Who knows? Maybe the few paragliding tourists will swell to far larger percentages if Nepal took care of its true nature.


sansarmagazine@gmail.com